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A Modern Day Dr. Dolittle

Lieblein+at+work+at+the+Gathering+Thyme+herb+store.
Lieblein at work at the Gathering Thyme herb store.

Lieblein at work at the Gathering Thyme herb store.

Katie Niver

Katie Niver

Lieblein at work at the Gathering Thyme herb store.

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Ever since she was a child, Judy Lieblein has talked to plants and animals. But unlike the rest of us, when Lieblein talks to them, they talk back. In English.

Lieblein is a herbalist, shamanic practitioner, and reiki master working at the Gathering Thyme herb store and apothecary in San Rafael. As a shamanic practitioner, she works with energies in the universe that can’t be seen. When I ask her what a shamanic practitioner is, Lieblein lowers her voice, and she says, “How can I say this? So, I see things. So I can see people’s auras, I can see spirits of plants or animals or people and so I work in kind of the unseen area to help somebody regain their health or their wellbeing.”

The way she leans across the table and whispers about the spirits she sees makes clear that she knows that some people will think that claiming to see spirits is quackery. But Lieblein doesn’t seem to mind the non-believers, as long as she can help the people, animals, and plants that need her. “I’m here to help people and I always have been. Help people, help animals, help the earth. That’s just kind of what I do,” she explains.

Her whole life, Lieblein has had a passion for plants and animals. Starting in kindergarten, Lieblein loved gardening. “I always was in the yard playing with plants and talking to them and making things out of them,” she says.  She also loved animals and, beginning in the first grade, she would “rescue wild animals.”   

This passion for helping led her to study psychology in college. While there, she interned at a juvenile detention center in San Diego and worked with a group of teenage girls including some gang members. She had good relationships with them, and they confided in her. She recalls, “I really loved them and developed friendships with them.” In addition, Lieblein also worked at a crisis hotline, answering calls and trying to help people who had depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Her soft voice and calm manner explain why she is so good at helping people.

Looking back at her time working at the juvenile detention center and crisis hotline, she believes she developed greater compassion and empathy for people from other walks of life, and that it helps her in her work today. She says,  “Everything that I learned, I still apply when I work with people.”

Even though Lieblein has been a gardener all her life, she only began to work with herbs in her thirties. Lieblein discovered her passion for them after taking a gardening class. The teacher of the class encouraged her to learn more about herbs because he thought she had a special aptitude with them. Lieblein continued to study herbalism and now uses herbs in plant spirit medicine. “Plant spirit medicine is [when] you connect with the plant, the spirit of the plant, to help the person in front of you or to learn information about the plant. . . . So when I’m working with somebody, generally a plant will come in, the spirit of the plant will be like ‘oh I can help’ and then I match people and plants together,” Lieblein explains. She says that plant spirits can sometimes take on a human or animal form.

It can be easy to dismiss Lieblein as a kook because of her belief in spirits and her ability to talk to plants and animals, and Lieblein is not blind to the people who laugh at her work. She admits that the hardest thing about her job is, “people not believing in what I do, like thinking that herbs don’t work or it’s a placebo effect. Some people see this as quackery, snake oil, something like that. People not understanding history of herbs and people have been using herbs since the beginning of time” But it would be a mistake to denigrate Lieblein’s work. While her methods may seem unconventional, she spends her days trying to help people with serious conditions such as cancer and depression, through the use of herbs and energy.

And like the mythical Dr. Dolittle, she does it by talking to plants and animals.

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